We should have realised that increased concerns over immigration would lead to a political rupture on the scale of Brexit, writes Caroline Flint MP
Where did it all go wrong? As a conviction politician and democratic socialist, I recognise an inherent tension in my politics.
As a six-times elected Labour member of parliament, I am elected to serve others: constituency, country and party. As legislators and representatives, our duty is to offer leadership, practical solutions to problems, but also to fulfil public expectations.
The implicit contract we sign when we stand for election requires a willingness to listen; and not just to the voices we are most comfortable with.
Take MPs’ expenses. When that issue erupted, politicians had to account for their actions. It was brutal. But parliament responded and reformed the system.
On immigration, we have done the opposite. Since Tony Blair’s government’s 2001 re-election, there has been a conscious decision to downplay public concern about immigration. Not the racist rantings of the far-right demanding an end to all immigration, but the concerns of communities about the impact of Blair’s decisions, continued by Gordon Brown and David Cameron.
Blair saw advantage – a new wave of allies within the European Union – by being open to free movement from eight new states, from 2004. The forecast was 15,000 new migrants. Over the next decade it was 1.5 million.
By 2015, net migration reached 332,000, immigration (including non-EU) averaging 492,000 a year for over a decade, offset by lower numbers returning home and Brits emigrating.
In 2006, the foreign prisoner story illustrated the crisis. Headlines ran about armed robbers, organised criminals, even rapists and murderers, not deported after release. The government appeared to have lost control of immigration. Labour was demolished in the subsequent local elections.
Stung by the impact, in 2007 the government delayed free movement for the A2 countries, Romania and Bulgaria.
Even the 2008 crash did not halt inward migration. The Brown government struggled, illustrated by Brown’s exchange over immigration with Gillian Duffy, a working-class Labour supporter. Labour crashed to its worst defeat for 80 years – with Cameron’s Tories pledging to cut immigration. The Tories did not really know how to; inheriting the same historical patterns of non-EU migration, and the same free movement rules Blair and Brown had accepted.
In opposition, Labour sought to win over Liberal Democrats. Immigration was rarely mentioned. In the shadow cabinet from 2010-15, I raised concerns about immigration. Following one such meeting, I was given a dressing down from the leader’s office for being ‘unhelpful’.
The warning signs were there. In 2001, just before the election, only six per cent offered immigration (unprompted) as a key issue; 23 per cent when given a list of choices. By 2005, it was 37 per cent. By 2010, YouGov recorded it as the most important issue: 54 per cent – the highest ever. It remained over 50 per cent every year from 2010, peaking at 60 per cent in 2016.
Still, everyone stayed in their comfort zones. More than a decade of silence from the mainstream ensured the only voices heard were be-suited with purple rosettes. In the 2014 European elections, the United Kingdom Independence party won the popular vote.
With a general election approaching, Labour set up a Ukip working group, which I was part of. It met infrequently, before being wound up. A briefing to Labour MPs, which I did not endorse, advised against campaigning on immigration.
Cameron won the election, pledging an EU referendum to undermine Ukip. Between 2014 and 2016, Cameron twice sought concessions from the EU on free movement. Each time, Labour ridiculed his efforts.
With restrictions on free movement still not firmly established, ‘Remain’ campaigners were advised that fear over job losses would trump worries about immigration in the EU referendum. How wrong they were. Even four in 10 Remain voters wanted changes to free movement. A YouGov pollster observed that ‘71 per cent of people in the UK think that immigration over the past 10 years has been too high’. The biggest ever popular vote, 17.4 million, backed Brexit.
But Brexit is not the great betrayal. The failure of the mainstream and, for me, Labour, to listen to voters for years, was. As Brexit approaches, some MPs have forgotten the inconvenient message voters delivered. The decision taken on 23 June 2016 was not an economic judgement. It was an expression of feelings far stronger.
Supporting fair controls on immigration or defending free movement to the end? Which path shows we are listening? Let us not keep making the same mistake.
Caroline Flint is member of parliament for Don Valley. She tweets @CarolineFlintMP
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